Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Finite, yet far-reaching

Like Doctor Who, who travels in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) machine, we go back and forth in our history.

 FAMILY TREE: ‘We carry our history with us. We are our history.’ (photo credit: Ellis Garvey/Unsplash)
FAMILY TREE: ‘We carry our history with us. We are our history.’
(photo credit: Ellis Garvey/Unsplash)

This week’s double parasha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, opens:

“All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God – your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water.

“You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God, but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:9-14).

The final paragraph refers to future generations, the generations that follow and our eternal responsibilities toward them. It is an orientation that oversteps time, like God’s name, which can be understood as “Is, was, will be” (the tetragrammaton, which is written in a combination of past, present, and future of the verb “to be”).

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

We are more familiar with the past than the unknown future

Having said that, we are more familiar with the past than with the unknown future.

James Baldwin adds, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” When we quote the rabbis of the past, we do it in the present tense – we say, “Rashi says,” even though he lived a thousand years ago. Like Doctor Who, who travels in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) machine, we go back and forth in our history.

That sentiment is also expressed in the phrase “le’dor va’dor,” meaning “from generation to generation,” found in the Kedusha section of the Amida prayer. Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains, “The Kedusha concludes as it does on weekdays with the proclamation that Israel will speak of God’s holiness forever and will never cease stressing it.”

“Le’dor va’dor” also refers to the chain of connections between the generations, including the transmission of Jewish identity, history, values, ideas, customs, and practices.

That concept of transgenerational wiring is also found in the second parasha of this week, Vayelech, when we read, “Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors’” (Deut. 31:7).

Relatedly, there is the interesting phenomenon of our age with DNA testing to discover our ancestral past – race, ethnicity, geography. There is even a test to see if someone is a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly family within the ancient tribe of Levi. This is based on a collection of genetic markers known as the Cohen Modal Hapoltype. This connection to the past, to forebears we have never known, seems to be a uniquely human quest.

SOCIOLOGIST ELISE BOULDING adds an engaging perspective on our connection to the past. She talks about the “200-year present” as a way of saying that while we live in the present, we are directly connected to the past and future.

She calls it the 200-year present, since most of us know someone who lived 100 years ago, or certainly we know someone who knows someone who lived then. We also know people who will be alive 100 years from now, or we know someone who will know someone who will be alive in 100 years. In Boulding’s eyes, making a human connection to the past and present should help give us a better understanding of the reach of our actions.

We often talk about the Second Temple period, of some 2,000 years ago – which can seem very far away. However, for the sake of argument, if we say a generation is 40 years, we are then talking of only 50 people between now and then, as 40 times 50 equals 2,000.

To take that idea a step further, we invoke our biblical ancestors at the beginning of the Amida. Let’s say they lived approximately 4,000 years ago – that would be 100 people. We can picture that. So next time you say the Amida, imagine your parents, grandparents, etc., 100 people, standing behind you all the way back to Sarah and Abraham. All of a sudden, they don’t seem so far away.

Expanding our understanding of the past, present, and future is also about expanding what we feel is close.

At the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, in between folk singer Odetta singing the gospel song “I’m On My Way” and immediately before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Rabbi Joachim Prinz said, “‘Neighbor’ is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of human dignity and integrity.”

In that vein, Boulding also teaches about creating a “global civic community” where people are less defined by nation-states and more by transnational identities such as being a woman, a teenager, one’s religion, one’s work. This, she believes, would help us overcome the walls and differences national identities can often create. At the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, we say “Nature knows no borders.”

Finally, in her expansive mode, Boulding says that in addition to the cognitive/analytic way of thinking, we need to use emotional/affective and intuitive/imaginative methods of thinking.

I will often ask my students to “write a paper” that is an original poem, rap, drawing, song, painting, or photograph as a reflection on what we have studied together. Those responses repeatedly and powerfully go to the core of what we have learned in ways that transcend words.

The lesson of “but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:14) is not only that we should feel connected and concerned for the generations before and after us, but that our finite lives can be understood in more inclusive, far-reaching, and infinite ways. 

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.